Oct 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

The politics of Biden's marijuana pardons

Illustration of aviator sunglasses with cannabis leaves reflected in the lenses.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

President Biden's marijuana pardons are a small policy change to entice young voters, but they've immediately become a political lightning rod in at least one battleground state.

Why it matters: It’s the latest in a steady stream of small policy gifts to persuade the Democratic base that Biden has kept the promises on the 2020 campaign trail.

In Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Gov. and Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman is taking a victory lap, calling it a "BFD and a massive step toward justice." He urged Biden to decriminalize marijuana during a Labor Day conversation in Pittsburgh.

  • Republican candidate Mehmet Oz jumped at the opportunity to paint Fetterman as soft on crime.
  • “We love having yet another opportunity to highlight just how extreme John Fetterman is — he wants to go even further than Biden — he’d decriminalize hard drugs like fentanyl and crystal meth that are literally killing Pennsylvanians, " Oz's spokesperson told Axios.
  • Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) issued a "one-time, large-scale pardon" for people with "minor, nonviolent marijuana convictions" on Thursday.

How it's playing in other states:

  • In Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) toed a fine line, saying in a statement that she's focused on helping law enforcement "go after violent criminals" while highlighting previous marijuana measures in the state. Her response proactively insulates herself from "soft on crime" attacks from Republicans.
  • Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Saturday he won't follow Biden's lead. Democratic gubernatorial nominee Beto O'Rourke promised to "legalize marijuana in Texas and expunge the records of those arrested for marijuana possession."
  • In Massachusetts, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Maura Healey promised to "pardon state convictions for simple marijuana possession." Healey's GOP opponent Geoff Diehl called Biden's plan "the latest in a series of outrageous moves [...] to eliminate consequences for wrongful actions as he panders for votes for his party in the midterm election."
  • In Arkansas, Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson called Biden's latest move a "flag of surrender in the fight to save lives from drug abuse," adding the DOJ should not issue blanket pardons.

The big picture: The executive action brings the U.S. a step closer to federal decriminalization.

  • Biden previously opposed legalization before moving away from that position when he became the Democratic nominee for president in 2020.
  • The House voted in April to decriminalize cannabis on the federal level and allow for the expungement of some marijuana convictions.
  • Efforts have stalled in the Senate, although Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has championed marijuana legislation.

The bottom line: A record 68% of Americans supported legalizing marijuana in a Gallup poll last year.

  • Biden also directed DOJ to review how the drug is categorized in federal law, which currently classifies marijuana in a higher schedule than fentanyl.

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